In three adjacent rooms at the Tate Modern, we find the paintings of Gerhard Richter, Mark Rothko, and Claude Monet – three different moments in abstraction. Richter’s paintings read as electrical static, the vertical energy field is starkly gouged, the colours blindingly harsh. In the case of Rothko, the mood is somnolent, the colours, while similarly kinetic, are muted, the energy field softly subterranean. In the single painting by Monet – my favourite – it is the natural world that emits its light and soul, vegetal matter adrift on a lake.
I recall these paintings while looking at Hedwig Barry’s solo show at the Nirox Sculpture Park, the fruits of her residency. Like Monet, she speaks of the impact of light and colour, green especially, which is unsurprising given that Nirox is built upon an aquifer, an underground reservoir, created when a meteor struck a lake, plunging the water beneath the earth thousands of years ago. Like Monet’s paintings, especially his monumental works at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, Barry’s paintings, on reused canvases donated by a friend, display a similar interest in deliberately discordant mark-making. In What Painting Is, James Elkins describes Monet’s process beautifully: ‘To do what Monet did … it is necessary to make marks that have no set orientation and no uniform shape. Each mark has to be different from each other mark: if one slants downward, the next has to go up. If one is straight, the next must be arcuate. Lancet strokes must follow rounded ones, zigzags must be cut across by ellipses, thickened strokes must be gouged by thin scrapes. Any pattern has to be defeated before it grows large enough to be seen by a casual eye’.
Pattern recognition is, I think, integral to the experience of the paintings by Rothko and Richter at the Tate Modern – they are formal states, no matter how electric or tremulous. In the case of Monet, however, it is the informal dissonance of energy fields, perceived in nature, which matter most. That Barry speaks ‘of things that cannot be resolved, that must be incomplete’, reveals that she, like Monet, understands that form requires formlessness, that art, after Walter Benjamin, also amounts to ‘the debris of history’. This suggests that Barry also shares an affinity with the paintings by Rothko or Richter. We are speaking of degrees of separation, because Barry adores the spirituality which she, like many of us, find to be the magical hidden ground – or aquifer – that feeds Rothko’s mysterious colour fields. While, like Richter, Barry also understands that ours is a nuclear age, an age which lives in the jaws of an inescapable existential threat. This because we are now as denatured as we were shaped by nature, as much geo-political and Anthropocene creatures as we remain tethered to a howling natural world.
Tony’s Colours, a paint shop in Booysens, Johannesburg, is Barry’s grail. There she spends hours realigning swatches, struggling to understand the language of colours, their interface, congruency, discordance – dance. And it is undoubtedly the dance of colour that is omnipresent when looking at and experiencing Barry’s paintings. As one attendee at her walkabout asked – is her mark-making a form of writing? A script? After Monet, after Elkins, it is. Figure requires its ground, and vice versa, forms are shaped in-and-through nothingness, language is the subtraction and abstraction of a fundamentally unknowable world. In Barry’s case, that world – revealed through paintings and sculptures – is bathed in tones that are soft yet sheer – greens cool and warm, blues synthetic and elemental, cerulean, aquamarine, yellows and oranges that dart, are ever shifting. This because for Barry the world is never still, colour never one thing. This is especially the case in the ‘flip colours’ she uses, which alter when light, shadow, and perspective shifts. If sculpture appeals greatly to her, it is because, unlike a 2D painting, it exists in the round. We are compelled to circumnavigate, grasp the refracted angularity and softness of tones and forms.
In Barry’s case, however, paintings and sculptures are not dissimilar forms, because in both what intrigues her most is the dynamism of objects, the sensations objects emit, and the inextricable relationship of the natural and unnatural realms. That she uses oils and automotive paint reveals this synergy. Automotive paint, unlike oils, is sheer, abstractly smooth, uniformly continuous – sprayed with the aid of a compressor. Oils, on the other hand, bear all the fragility and irresolution of the haptic – the painter’s hand. Both approaches are crucial. That Barry chooses to integrate automotive paint into her works in oils, thereby shifting their effervescent surface even further, tells us that the artist is prepared to experiment, always.
The sculptures are made involuntarily, haplessly, by a machine used to compress scrapped cars. Made from single or welded sheets of aluminium, they suggest both industrial and biomorphic forms. What they become in the compressing process is never determined in advance. In short, the lack of control meets sublimity, or the element of wonder and surprise that distinguishes Barry’s ever restless and curious imagination. While the sculptures, to me, echo the works of Pop Expressionists – say Rauschenberg – they are not repurposed objects. For Barry, the artists John Chamberlain and Lynda Benglis is a tighter fit. No up-cycler, Barry uses aluminium sheets which are immaculate, designed for moulding the bodies of cars, which she, with the aid of a compressing machine, shapeshifts. Shapeshifting is crucial, as is the intangible dance of colour, because for Barry forms and tones are never uniform. It is the malleability of the world that enchants her.
While a resident at Nirox, a group of weekenders heard the gushing sound of the compressor. Through the trees they saw a many-spangled large bright object which they mistakenly assumed to be a jumping castle in the process of being inflated. Excitement escalated as the children raced towards the scene. Notwithstanding the disappointment on realising this was no jumping castle, the error remains instructive. Barry’s sculptures possess the characteristics of a fun-house – they are gaudily twisted simmering sweet-wrappers, loudly playful excrescences – shapes as snarled as they are explorative. To see a vast snarling yet playful object perched on a green knoll is a delight. More angular than soft, more a jagged 3D form, they evoke origami, or the virtual fantasy of a 3D printer, objects that are fundamentally pristine and clinical. And yet, despite this austere quality, they are pretty, becoming, inviting, wholesome, easeful – joyous.
It is joy that, in my view, makes Barry’s sculptures and paintings deserving of our care. They elevate life. They are never a beatitude, never merely consoling. Instead, they dance, frolic, express what is of far greater value than consolation – exuberance. If Rothko appeases an existential crisis – albeit unsuccessfully, given that he took his own life – and if Richter reminds us that ours is a radioactive and frighteningly nuclear moment – the on-going and tragic fallout of the two great European wars, or catastrophes – then it is Monet, who precedes both, whose pastoral vision Barry reveres most greatly. She is under no illusion that life is a pastoral idyll, she simply understands that we cannot sustain ourselves with holding onto it. Her meticulously selected colour palette is the story of this zest for the vivacity of life, its chemical and electric beauty, its dance, its balm and many-splendid pleasures.
Life is harsh, humans cruel. But, like Monet, Hedwig Barry has chosen to ease our nervous, now hysterically fearful, condition. The context in which her works were displayed at Nirox – against yellow rammed earth walls and raw soft-yellow pine – proved perfect. For LeRoy Croft, the Director of Programming, Barry’s paintings were ‘a pushback to the beige police’. Indeed. As I leave what is surely a delightfully inspiring show, Sven Christian, the newly appointed Curator for Nirox and the Eduardo Villa Will Trust Centre for Contemporary Sculpture, shows me a photograph he has taken. We see a luminous green praying mantis betwixt a field of blue and pink and an earthy wall resembling cork. Christian has perfectly captured what Hedwig Barry calls ‘the space between’ – between worlds, hearts, minds and souls, colour and form, the wondrous joy of the natural world and the dark foreboding of the Anthropocene. It is here, in this gnashing crux, that we must meet.